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Papal apology a first step


I suspect that more comments may be made about what John Paul did not say than what he actually said in his March 12 “Day of Pardon” Mass and reconciliation service. He should have said this or that. I, too, have my shoulds, but they are not my main focus.

I believe in the power of the symbol -- symbolic actions and words from which power goes forth. Human beings are symbol-makers, hence, the basis for effective liturgy and sacraments. As a visual, prophetic action, John Paul’s message reached far more people than any encyclical ever could.

At Vatican II, Paul VI demonstrated on several occasions his keen sense of the power of symbol. He donated his papal tiara to the poor people of India during the 1965 Eucharistic Congress. He held a moving ceremony of reconciliation between Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople and himself, regretting the sins of the 1054 division between East and West. He invited a small, “symbolic” group of women to the council as auditors for the first time in history. When Paul opened the second session of the council, he welcomed the ecumenical observers and apologized to them for Rome’s part in Christian divisions. Many bishops murmured their disapproval. Why should the one, true, holy, Catholic church apologize to anyone? But Paul was not dismayed and proceeded to make amends by launching the ecumenical movement from the Catholic side.

Regardless of the limitations of John Paul II’s ceremonial message, the most important thing is that he actually held a public service of confession and repentance in St. Peter’s. He involved prelates of the worldwide Catholic church in a public naming of the church’s sins and prayed for God’s forgiveness.

I do not know how appropriately the other characters were cast for their confessional parts. One could hope that as our brother Joseph Ratzinger represented the overzealous defenders of truth, he might gain insight into his own role.

After each specific confession, a lamp was lit before a crucifix. Light was shone on specific sinful areas in the church’s words, deeds and omissions. The lamp has been lit. May it produce an eternal flame.

It would have been nice if the pope had denounced the Holocaust and Rome’s silent acquiescence in it. It would have been nice if the pope had specifically acknowledged how the official church (not just individual Christians) humiliated and marginalized women and used the infamous 15th-century Malleus Maleficarum (“hammer of witches”) as the instrument that sent off thousands of wise women to untimely deaths; how the official church continues to erase women by its mandatory sexist language both for humankind and the deity and the exclusive conclusions that follow in terms of ministry. It would have been nice if the pope officially abandoned the theologically bankrupt and ecumenically insensitive use of indulgences. It would have been nice … but this was a symbolic action, not a catchall encyclical.

Who knows what will be the ripple effect of the pope’s gesture? Who knows how the Spirit that blows where it will may prick the conscience of church leaders who have sinned by their unjust actions and have hitherto taken shelter under church auspices? The pope has given all the bishops and priests of the world permission to examine their own consciences publicly and to ask forgiveness, not just of God, but of the very people they have offended -- not those dead hundreds of years. Some bishops have already taken their cue from the pope and circulated confessional texts.

Rome says it is a first step. Parents delight in the first step of their baby, but if there are no subsequent steps, they become alarmed. I await the next and the next steps -- evidence of Rome’s true purpose of amendment, especially in its area of greatest blindness as it pertains to the female half of humanity.

Don’t blame it on the frail, elderly pope. He has taken his one step. Get in stride with him, brothers. Carry him along. Walk, run, leap in the way of love and justice for all. Blow the Jubilee horns and demonstrate that we are finally ready to live the kin-dom way of Jesus.

Mercy Sr. Carmel McEnroy is currently Visiting Lilly Professor at Berea College in Kentucky and adjunct professor of Catholic Studies at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000